The night Verizon's 4G died

Being deprived mobile data during a business trip without warning can be infuriating, as well as a bit scary for smartphone GPS users.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Business travel. High-diddley-dee, the IT consultant life for me.

So the last few weeks, I've been the proud owner of a Droid Bionic.

My phone upgrade choices were primarily based on my desire to Wi-Fi tether to the phone for access to Verizon's 4G LTE network via whatever tablet device I happen to carry around on any particular week (I own several and I rotate them around for testing purposes) as well as from my corporate laptop.

You see, for the most part, hotel Wi-Fi in the United States is god awful. Sometimes, you get very lucky. For example, at the Doubletree Hotel here in the Northwest Chicago suburbs, I've been getting 3Megabits a second.

Kudos to Hilton Hotels, seriously. Impressive. I hope this is the sign of better Internet access to come on all of your properties.

3 Megabits sustained is really, really good. But most hotels you're lucky to get 256K or 512K. 128K is probably more typical, especially if you are staying at a "Budget" business hotel.

Not only should you not even try to stream a Netflix movie at any of those speeds, but you're probably not emailing any big PowerPoints that you're working on back to your corporate home base either. Heck, if you can manage transfer anything at all on a congested hotel Internet connection if the property is close to full occupancy, consider yourself very lucky.

If you get stuck with crappy hotel Wi-Fi, your'e ditching out to the local Starbucks if you have to download or upload anything big.

So the Droid Bionic, at least for the last three weeks I've had to travel with it, has been awesome. I've been getting 8megabits-12megabits a second, with even faster bursts on occasion. Hell, that's fast enough for me to download DVD ISO images of operating systems on my laptop and watch a Netflix movie on my iPad or XOOM at the same time. Verizon LTE is real mobile broadband.

When it works.

Sunday, October 16 was the night that made me realize just how dependent I am as a business professional on my mobile data. The day pretty much started out normally. I went to LaGuardia airport, got some work done there on my laptop while waiting for the plane, got on a late afternoon flight to Chicago, and then I got off the plane at O'Hare around 7:30PM central.

First thing I did when walking off the jetway was to turn on my Droid to see if I had gotten any emails or calls while I was in the air. My Delta regional Jet flight didn't have onboard Wi-Fi, so I was getting kind of edgy. Must. Get. Emails.

The Droid boots. I look at the signal indicator, waiting for it to flip into 3G mode for about a minute or two. All I see is four bars of signal, with no data indicator. Nothing.

Huh. That's weird. Thinking this was an Android glitch, I rebooted the phone.

Four bars. No data. I called my wife, just to make sure the phone was working and to let her know I was alive. Husbands do crap like that.

So I went down to baggage claim and grabbed my luggage. I went outside to wait for the rental car jitney. Maybe the reception would be better.

Four bars. No data.

Crap, I really hope this is temporary. I was kind of relying on the Droid to navigate me to my hotel, and the Google Maps navigation service is dead in the water without mobile data. I had gotten complacent and totally reliant on this thing and took Verizon's network reliability for granted.

I still own three Garmin Nuvi navigation units that I use on my cars at home, but I stopped carrying one in my bag since I got the Bionic. It never occurred to me that Verizon's 3G data service, let alone the 4G service, would go offline for any length of time.

So the Avis jitney drops me off at the rental car lot. Still no data. I walk over to my rental vehicle, pop the trunk, and throw my bags in. I get in the car and start the engine. I glance down at the Droid.

Still no data. WHAT THE HELL, VERIZON?

I'm now starting to freak out. I've never, never had to travel to a major city without GPS guidance in some form. Hell, I'm totally dependent on it. Oh my God, am I actually going to have to get directions from someone? Like, pay attention to the roads and stuff? I have adult onset of Attention Deficit Disorder! What the hell am I gonna do?

How the hell am I going to get to the customer tomorrow if my service is still out? I'm gonna have to get the hotel to print directions out if I can even find my hotel in the first place.

I'm doomed. DOOMED.

So I pull the car up to the Avis customer service shed, get out, and walk in.

"Hi, can I help you?" says the counter dude.

"Um, yeah, like, my Droid's data service is out, and the Google GPS stuff isn't working. I need to get to ... Arlington Heights. Do you have any Garmin GPS units available? I have no idea how long my data service is gonna be out."

"Well, we're out of the Garmins, they're in real demand. You're like the 10th person to say your data is out. But I can give you a directions card to get you to your hotel. It's only like 20 minutes away."

He hands me a pre-printed card with directions.

"Um thanks... it doesn't look too bad... make a left out of the parking lot, then another left, then two lights, take Interstate 395, then get off at Interstate 90 to Rockford, and then get off at Arlington Heights Road."

"Yup, that's it, your hotel is just off the exit, you can see it from there."

"Yeah, I think I can handle it. I think."

"Good Luck! Thanks for renting from AVIS!"

I muttered a number of obscenities under my breath that would make Yosemite Sam blush. So I got back in the car and... looked at the directions.

There's a feeling of being in a city driving around completely lost which is not entirely different from having a panic attack.

Actually, in my case, it probably was a panic attack. Still, I somehow managed to look at the directions in the dark in my stupid little Hyundai Elantra (I was even in a fouler mood for not being upgraded to a bigger car this week) and got to my hotel within 40 minutes in Chicago traffic.

I dropped off my bags and then went cruising locally for something to eat.

When I got back to my hotel -- after treating myself to an Italian Beef sandwich at Johnnie's -- I finally was able to get online using the hotel's Wi-Fi.

Three hours after I had landed, I had learned that the entire national Verizon 4G network was still down, and it was also affecting customers with 4G devices with 3G capability. I wouldn't learn until the next morning that the network had only been partially restored and customers still had service outages, some ten hours later.

I personally had my service restored late in the evening, but it winked on and off a couple of times, so I decided not to rely on it and stuck with the hotel connection.

So what have I learned about this whole experience? Well, for starters, I'm extremely dependent on my mobile data -- for everything. And while Google Maps navigation is a wonderful feature of Android smartphones, if you lose your data, you are in a bad, bad way if you don't have an alternative.

From now on, I'm schlepping the good 'ol Garmin Nuvi with me in my suitcase as a backup in case this happens again.

I would caution Google that while the dynamic map updating over mobile IP connections is great, I think it might make sense for customers to be able to download at least some kind of national map database locally to the devices in case it is needed during a major data service outage.

Maybe not as detailed and with all of the POI information in Google Maps, but enough to get someone from someplace to an address if needed, with all the major hotels and airports programmed in.

I don't see this as technically impossible, since Garmin's own map data for North America is only about 1.2GB -- which is less than 10 percent of the total storage on a 16GB MicroSD card that's in a typical Android phone these days.

Have you ever been lost when your 3G data connection got cut off on your smartphone? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards